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EDITORIAL

Analysing Putin’s Nuclear War Rhetoric Amid the Ukraine Crisis

Vladimir Putin

Putin’s Escalating Nuclear Rhetoric: Analysing the Threats

In recent months, President Putin has made a series of alarming statements regarding Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He boasted that Russian nuclear forces have “no analogues in the world.” More worryingly, Putin threatened that Russia is “ready to respond to any aggression” and will “neutralize any potential aggressor.” These threatening statements, combined with escalating tensions over Ukraine and Syria, have led analysts to fear that Putin may be signalling a more aggressive nuclear posture.

Modernization of Arsenal

Russia has invested heavily in modernizing its strategic nuclear forces. It has tested new intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the RS-28 Sarmat, and hyper-sonic glide vehicles that Putin claims can overcome any missile defense system. Russia is also developing nuclear-armed underwater drones and nuclear-powered cruise missiles with unlimited range. This modernization, along with overt nuclear threats, raises concerns that Putin aims to strengthen Russia’s nuclear deterrent and project an image of Russia as a global superpower.

NATO’s Dilemma

NATO faces a dilemma in responding to Russia’s rhetoric and force modernization. If it takes no action, it risks appearing weak in the face of Russian provocation. However, if NATO intensifies its own exercises or nuclear rhetoric, it could fuel an escalating arms race and raise the risk of miscalculation. NATO must find a balance between deterring Russian aggression and avoiding unnecessary provocation. Regular communication and diplomacy are needed to clarify Russia’s intentions, reduce misunderstandings, and lower tensions. With strategic patience and prudence, NATO can counter Russia’s rhetoric without exacerbating this complex and dangerous situation.

What Would Prompt Putin to Initiate Nuclear War?

As the conflict in Ukraine continues with no end in sight, concerns are rising over the possibility of Vladimir Putin escalating to nuclear weapons. There are a few scenarios that could prompt the Russian leader to take such an extreme measure:

Deterrence Failure. If Putin perceives that Russia’s nuclear deterrent is under threat, he may launch a limited nuclear strike to re-establish deterrence. For example, if NATO intervened directly in Ukraine or expanded missile defense systems near Russia’s borders, Putin could view that as threatening Russia’s nuclear deterrent and second-strike capability.

Perceived Existential Threat. If Putin believed Russia itself was under existential threat from an adversary, he may resort to nuclear weapons. For instance, if Russia became embroiled in a conventional war with NATO that it was losing, Putin could turn to tactical nuclear weapons to stave off defeat and protect Russia’s territorial integrity.

Loss of Face. As an authoritarian leader, Putin’s power and prestige depend greatly on projecting an image of strength. If Russia suffered a massive conventional defeat that Putin believed would irreparably damage his strongman image, he may gamble on limited nuclear use to force a stalemate and negotiate an end to hostilities while saving face.

Of course, it is difficult to know with certainty what combination of events would actually lead Putin to initiate nuclear war. His decision-making in such an extreme scenario would depend greatly on his psychology, perception of threats, and assessment of Russia’s position on the global stage at that time. NATO and the West must exercise extreme caution in their dealings with Russia to avoid even inadvertently provoking a nuclear crisis. De-escalation, open communication channels, and predictable behavior will be key to reducing nuclear tensions with Moscow in the years to come.

Assessing the Risk of Nuclear War Over Ukraine

President Putin’s Rhetoric

President Putin has made veiled threats hinting at the possibility of nuclear war if NATO interferes in Ukraine. His language appears intended to deter Western intervention and sow fear. However, launching nuclear weapons would be an extraordinary escalation that risks mutual destruction. The rhetoric itself is concerning but analysts judge the probability of actual nuclear war to be low.

Lack of Clear Strategy

There are no indications that Russia has a coherent strategy for nuclear war in Europe beyond deterrence. Deploying tactical nuclear weapons or initiating a first strike would rupture Russia’s relations with Europe and the wider world. The costs to Russia’s economy and global standing would be catastrophic. While Russia sees NATO expansion as threatening, a preemptive nuclear attack remains an implausible scenario.

Constraints on Nuclear Use

Russia’s nuclear doctrine states that nuclear weapons would only be used in response to an attack that threatened the existence of the Russian state. Their policy is one of deterrence and they recognize that any use of nuclear arms would have devastating consequences. There are also technical constraints on Russia’s ability to deploy tactical nuclear weapons rapidly and at scale. Their arsenal is ageing and modernization programmes are struggling.

Mismatched Conventional Forces

Russia maintains an advantage in conventional forces over most European NATO members, especially in Eastern Europe. However, in a conventional war Russia would be outmatched by the combined forces of NATO. Russia’s actions in Ukraine demonstrate a willingness to use hybrid warfare and covert operations to expand their sphere of influence without direct confrontation. A conventional assault on NATO is unlikely given the mismatch in forces.

In summary, while heightened rhetoric and tensions raise the spectre of catastrophic escalation, the realities of nuclear and conventional deterrence, strategy and capability suggest that the prospect of outright war between Russia and NATO remains remote. Close monitoring of events is prudent but there are no indications an attack on a NATO member is imminent or inevitable in the coming years.

How Should the West Respond to Putin’s Nuclear Threats?

Prevent Escalation of Tensions

The West must be extremely cautious to avoid rhetoric or actions that could escalate tensions with Russia. Any direct military intervention against Russia could provoke a nuclear response and lead to uncontrollable escalation.

Conventional military options like establishing no-fly zones over Ukraine or arming Ukrainian forces should also be avoided, as Russia may view them as a direct challenge. The West should continue using diplomatic and economic sanctions to put pressure on Russia, while also keeping lines of communication open.

Rhetoric that portrays Russia as an imminent threat to wider European security could also be counterproductive by raising tensions and feeding into Putin’s narrative of Western aggression. Leaders should avoid drastic warnings about the potential for Russian attacks on NATO members or other neighboring states in the near future.

Reassure Allies But Avoid Alarmism

At the same time, NATO and European leaders must reassure allies like Poland and the Baltic states that their security commitments will be honored. But this reassurance should avoid alarmist language that portrays war with Russia as inevitable or imminent if Putin’s ambitions are not curbed.

Overly provocative actions like preemptively deploying large numbers of NATO forces in Eastern Europe could also raise tensions by signalling to Russia that NATO aims to gain a military advantage. Modest deployments for training and exercises are less provocative ways to signal NATO’s commitment to collective defense.

Address Longer-Term Challenges

In the longer term, Europe must become less dependent on Russian energy exports and more resilient against Russian cyber operations and disinformation campaigns. But Europe also needs to better understand what Russia wants and the factors driving Putin’s foreign policy decisions.

A cooperative approach will be needed to make progress on issues like arms control. And while Putin remains in power, the West must find ways to work with Russia that uphold Western values and interests but also recognize Russia’s desire to be treated as an equal on the global stage. The alternative is a prolonged standoff with a nuclear-armed adversary.

Could Deploying Foreign Troops to Ukraine Provoke Nuclear War?

 

Deploying troops from foreign nations into Ukraine could escalate tensions with Russia and increase the prospect of direct military confrontation between NATO and Russian forces. Russia has issued warnings that it would view foreign troops in Ukraine as tantamount to a declaration of war.

Conventional Escalation

Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine has already led to the deaths of over 13,000 people, even without direct combat between Russian and NATO troops. The injection of foreign troops risks rapid escalation of the conflict, as Russia may deploy reinforcements and additional weapons systems in response. A wider war could draw in neighboring countries and destabilize the region. While Russia’s nuclear threats are a concern, a conventional military escalation should also be avoided.

Nuclear Brinkmanship

Russia frequently employs nuclear rhetoric and sabre-rattling to deter foreign intervention in Ukraine. President Putin has said “no one should have any illusions” that Russia would not use nuclear weapons in response to “aggression against Russia”. Deploying NATO troops could provoke a dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship. While the probability of actual nuclear exchange would remain low, even veiled threats impact geopolitical stability.

Compromised Peace Process

The Minsk II ceasefire agreement provides the best opportunity to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine through political and diplomatic means. Deploying foreign troops risks permanently damaging this fragile peace process by hardening battle lines and entrenching positions. A return to open warfare would result in further loss of life and suffering, with no guarantee of a better outcome. All sides should exercise restraint and pursue constructive diplomacy.

In summary, while the desire to support Ukraine is understandable, deploying foreign troops is not advisable given the potential for rapid escalation. All parties would be better served by a renewal of ceasefire negotiations and progress on political solutions. The human cost of direct war between Russia and NATO allies is too great to justify aggressive military posturing. A diplomatic resolution to the crisis should remain the top priority.

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